Why Do People Say “Pardon My French” When They Swear?

No, having a colorful vocabulary doesn't make you bilingual or a Francophile!

Of the many languages that grace our globe, why is French the one we’ve deemed capable of glossing over the more profane utterances that sometimes slip out? We could be forgiving each other’s Finnish! Why not “absolve my Albanian”? “Dismiss my Danish” is right there! Alternatively, when the French let one fly during fondue, are they begging their guests to exculpate their English, lest their obscenity inflame beef over bourguignon?

In a word, no.

“Pardon my French” is an idiom exclusive to the English language, stemming from the two countries’ own millennium-old beef—and not one of the bourguignon type. While the rapport between England and France has been a bit rosier in modern times, when it comes to getting along, historically, they do not.

In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, seized not only the day but all of England, leading to a never-before-seen integration of French words into the English lexicon. According to Merriam-Webster, “William put French-speaking Normans in nearly all positions of power in the country. English got Frenchified.” As time progressed, this French-infused language became a tool of the ruling class in England, whose incorporated vocabulary would give the pretense of a more sophisticated, refined individual. So, when among what they perceived as the less-likely-to-be-so-chic proletariat, elites felt their usage of a language that might not be understood by all of their audience to be worthy of an apology. While this phrase has its origins in France, these “French” things do not.

Quite literally, at the time, people were asking their conversation partners to excuse them for speaking in French. Early usage of the phrase can be found in a story published by Karl Von Miltie in his 1831 book, The Twelve Nights: “My dear Mr. Heartwell, you are come to see me at last. Bless me, how fat you are grown!—absolutely round as a ball:—you will soon be as embonpoint (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.” For those who do not speak French, embonpoint is defined as “the plumpness of a person.” In this instance, the speaker is not apologizing for the insult, just for doing it in French—though these 10 French phrases everyone in the world should know might come in handy if someone accidentally insults you in French.

Given the phrase’s already established aptitude for resolving verbal violations, “pardon my French” transitioned into a way to atone for general foul language, as over time, French words phased out of common usage in English. The phrase evolved from a bonafide apology for using haughty language to a bonafide apology for using naughty language. In both cases, it is atonement for being, in some way, shape, or form, intolerable. However, etiquette these days is a bit more laissez-faire than it once was, so don’t be overly concerned if a swear word slips out in the wrong context, especially if you take the time to apologize.

Caroline Fanning
Caroline joined Reader’s Digest as an editorial intern in 2017 and has since risen through the ranks to editor. The RD List, "We Found a Fix" column and "Nicest Places in America" series are her dearest darlings. There is someone walking around Washington State with one of her stories tattooed on their bicep—her crowning achievement. She graduated from Stockton University in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 2017 and currently lives and will likely expire in Asbury Park, New Jersey.